National League Contact-Management Update

Another page has been ripped off of the calendar, and sample sizes are finally getting to a point where they actually matter. This, then, represents a good occasion to take a first look at starting-pitcher contact-management trends. Today, it’s the National League.

The data being examined today runs through May 26, and includes all ERA qualifiers as of that date. Pitchers in the table below are listed in Adjusted Contact Score order. For those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Adjusted Contact Score is the relative production, on a scale where 100 equals average, that a pitcher “should have” allowed based on the exit speed/angle of each ball-in-play yielded. Here goes:

NL Starting Pitcher BIP Profiles – Thru 5/26
Name AVG MPH FB MPH LD MPH GB MPH POP% FLY% LD% GB% ADJ C K% BB% ERA- FIP- TRU –
Hendricks 88.1 84.5 96.4 87.8 3.9% 18.6% 19.4% 58.1% 68 20.3% 6.4% 83 73 67
Matz 88.9 87.8 91.9 88.7 2.4% 24.6% 17.5% 55.6% 70 25.8% 4.6% 63 64 57
J. Garcia 87.6 88.7 90.5 85.9 0.7% 19.2% 19.2% 61.0% 72 23.3% 9.1% 92 73 71
Maeda 85.4 85.7 88.6 83.7 6.4% 33.3% 17.0% 43.3% 73 22.9% 7.1% 86 90 68
G. Gonzalez 90.7 92.2 94.3 88.5 5.1% 30.6% 15.9% 48.4% 74 20.7% 5.7% 72 93 70
C. Martinez 87.4 86.8 87.6 87.8 1.3% 28.3% 16.4% 53.9% 75 19.0% 9.1% 108 104 80
Kershaw 86.3 87.6 90.9 83.5 2.8% 24.2% 20.8% 52.2% 77 33.7% 1.8% 39 36 45
Pomeranz 90.4 89.6 93.0 90.4 5.7% 32.8% 13.9% 47.5% 78 28.3% 11.8% 45 76 72
Arrieta 87.1 88.5 90.3 84.7 1.2% 22.9% 19.4% 56.5% 78 25.7% 8.1% 43 68 69
Roark 87.3 89.3 91.3 84.7 1.2% 21.0% 23.4% 54.4% 79 22.0% 9.1% 68 87 78
Nola 86.2 88.2 90.8 84.1 1.2% 22.9% 19.5% 56.3% 81 26.8% 4.6% 78 63 63
Locke 88.9 88.7 94.2 87.5 1.2% 31.5% 17.3% 50.0% 84 14.2% 10.6% 133 138 103
J. Nelson 89.7 91.5 89.8 89.8 5.2% 27.6% 20.1% 47.1% 87 20.5% 9.9% 71 107 89
Hammel 90.2 92.1 96.4 86.2 2.8% 33.3% 18.8% 45.1% 88 21.6% 9.6% 54 84 88
G. Cole 87.9 87.4 92.9 85.5 2.6% 32.5% 24.0% 40.9% 88 19.9% 7.2% 66 81 86
Cueto 86.5 87.3 93.4 83.0 3.0% 23.6% 22.7% 50.7% 88 22.9% 4.1% 65 60 74
A. Wood 89.5 92.5 91.3 87.6 2.9% 23.9% 18.8% 54.3% 88 25.2% 7.3% 106 85 76
Syndergaard 85.9 88.7 89.0 84.3 1.4% 23.6% 18.8% 56.3% 88 32.6% 3.9% 52 44 57
Conley 88.0 89.8 90.8 85.0 1.6% 34.6% 23.8% 40.0% 89 21.8% 11.2% 104 94 91
Chatwood 88.2 89.6 91.0 86.9 1.1% 25.0% 15.3% 58.5% 89 15.5% 6.9% 64 96 96
Scherzer 87.4 91.9 90.8 83.8 6.3% 36.7% 20.9% 36.1% 90 31.5% 6.7% 95 107 65
Kazmir 84.5 86.7 85.2 82.8 4.4% 33.5% 20.5% 41.6% 90 23.9% 8.8% 127 130 83
Straily 88.9 88.6 95.0 87.4 3.6% 34.4% 20.4% 41.6% 90 23.1% 10.7% 73 103 95
Niese 89.0 88.5 90.9 88.6 0.6% 28.1% 18.0% 53.3% 90 16.8% 7.8% 124 142 96
Bumgarner 89.3 89.1 93.2 90.1 6.5% 32.3% 19.4% 41.8% 91 27.9% 7.3% 59 81 72
Samardzija 88.8 88.7 92.1 88.4 3.5% 28.2% 21.6% 46.7% 91 22.3% 5.8% 69 79 81
Lester 88.2 88.5 92.2 87.2 4.8% 29.7% 22.1% 43.4% 92 23.9% 6.9% 65 88 80
Colon 90.5 90.5 91.4 90.5 4.2% 32.3% 24.6% 38.9% 92 18.5% 4.9% 91 92 88
Shields 88.8 89.0 96.0 85.3 1.1% 30.4% 20.4% 48.1% 92 21.2% 8.7% 81 99 90
Velasquez 90.2 90.6 93.8 88.7 6.9% 37.4% 19.1% 36.6% 93 28.8% 8.0% 69 81 74
Wisler 90.3 88.1 97.5 89.5 3.3% 42.0% 18.2% 36.5% 98 18.6% 6.1% 78 97 95
Strasburg 88.7 88.9 94.1 85.9 3.1% 30.4% 21.1% 45.3% 102 32.0% 6.7% 70 60 71
Greinke 88.5 90.3 91.9 85.3 3.5% 26.7% 22.6% 47.2% 103 21.2% 4.7% 111 88 91
F. Liriano 89.4 92.5 91.7 86.5 0.7% 29.1% 17.7% 52.5% 104 22.4% 12.9% 112 134 105
Lackey 89.3 87.6 95.1 86.5 2.6% 34.4% 21.4% 41.6% 105 26.0% 5.5% 85 79 83
Bettis 90.2 92.7 94.5 85.9 1.0% 27.3% 21.5% 50.3% 105 17.0% 6.2% 104 94 106
Wainwright 86.4 88.0 92.1 81.1 2.0% 29.5% 27.9% 40.6% 109 13.6% 6.6% 148 102 119
Rea 90.7 90.0 98.0 87.7 4.5% 27.8% 24.5% 43.2% 109 16.3% 10.0% 118 116 119
Cain 88.5 86.8 94.8 85.7 5.9% 34.3% 26.6% 33.1% 111 16.7% 5.7% 146 121 110
Koehler 89.9 89.4 94.0 87.2 6.3% 26.8% 21.1% 45.8% 111 17.1% 13.9% 120 114 128
Ch. Anderson 88.3 91.6 89.5 85.1 3.3% 38.1% 19.7% 38.8% 113 18.4% 7.6% 129 137 113
Teheran 91.2 94.4 91.6 89.6 3.5% 36.0% 15.7% 44.8% 113 23.1% 6.6% 65 90 98
Finnegan 87.4 90.2 90.4 83.5 2.3% 31.2% 24.9% 41.6% 113 16.2% 10.9% 97 129 127
J. Fernandez 92.5 90.9 97.2 91.2 4.0% 28.0% 29.6% 38.4% 115 36.7% 10.2% 71 61 73
W. Peralta 91.3 90.0 96.8 89.5 1.7% 25.3% 24.2% 48.9% 115 14.3% 9.0% 160 132 128
Eickhoff 91.7 94.1 94.2 88.7 5.5% 28.6% 23.2% 42.7% 117 19.3% 4.9% 96 95 107
Harvey 88.0 88.6 90.6 85.8 2.9% 30.8% 27.4% 38.9% 117 18.0% 7.0% 161 111 115
Corbin 90.8 89.0 96.1 90.5 1.6% 27.9% 18.1% 52.3% 117 16.8% 7.3% 101 119 120
Wacha 89.6 92.1 90.8 86.9 0.0% 27.4% 26.3% 46.3% 119 19.4% 8.9% 129 97 117
Leake 92.9 94.3 95.3 90.7 1.5% 25.5% 22.1% 51.0% 125 14.6% 5.0% 100 117 128
W-Y. Chen 89.5 88.9 93.7 87.2 1.2% 35.5% 23.7% 39.6% 136 19.7% 5.2% 116 104 124
Hellickson 89.7 91.8 93.9 86.0 3.2% 31.8% 22.9% 42.0% 140 24.4% 6.0% 99 97 114
AVERAGE 88.9 89.6 92.7 86.8 3.1% 29.5% 21.0% 46.5% 97 22.0% 7.5% 92 94 91

Most of the column headers are self explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, and traditional ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA-, which incorporates the exit speed/angle data. Each pitchers’ Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitchers’ individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.

Cells are also color coded. If a pitcher’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average, the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.

Before we get to the pitchers, a couple words regarding year-to-year correlation of pitchers’ plate-appearance frequencies and BIP authority allowed. From 2013 to -15, ERA qualifiers’ K and BB rates and all BIP frequencies except for liner rate (.14 correlation coefficient) correlated very closely from year to year. The correlation coefficients for K% (.81), BB% (.66), and pop up (.53), fly ball (.76) and grounder (.86) rates are extremely high. While BIP authority correlates somewhat from year to year — FLY/LD authority is .37, grounder authority is .25 — it doesn’t correlate nearly as closely as frequency. Keep these relationships in mind as we move on to some player comments.

First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the NL’s inner-circle starting-pitching greats. To truly dominate, a pitcher must excel in the three phases of pitching: maximizing strikeouts, minimizing walks, and managing contact. Three prime examples of such pitchers are Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Jake Arrieta.

All three easily exceed the average qualifier’s K rate; Arrieta is “yellow.” and both Kershaw and Syndergaard are “red.” All three have BB rates in the average range or better; Kershaw’s is off-the-charts, good over two full standard deviations lower than league average. In addition, all three are comfortably better-than-average contact-managers.

Kershaw’s 77 Adjusted Contact Score is largely fueled by exceptional contact-authority management. No NL qualifier has managed fly-ball contact better than Kershaw; he has an amazing fly-ball Adjusted Contact Score of 47 to date. His grounder-authority management (70 Adjusted Contact Score) has also been excellent, third among qualifiers. This, coupled with a solid BIP mix featuring a pronounced grounder tendency, and Kershaw’s contact-management ability fits in quite nicely with his power and finesse.

Syndergaard’s 88 Adjusted Contact Score has a chance to get markedly better. He squelches most types of authority even better than Kershaw, and has an even more pronounced grounder tendency. He has allowed near league-average fly-ball authority, however. His 108 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score is his one blemish. There’s no reason to believe he won’t improve in that area and become even more dominant, if one can imagine that.

Arrieta’s 78 Adjusted Contact Score is derived from a similar BIP profile to both Kershaw and Syndergaard, starting (again) with a strong grounder tendency. He doesn’t stifle fly-ball contact to the extent Kershaw does (79 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score), but is much better than Syndergaard in that area. These three hurlers’ “tru” ERA- figures to date are 45, 57 and 69, respectively, ranking them first, tied for second and eighth in the NL through May 26. This means that there are five other pitchers in the upper crust according to “tru” ERA, and all have year-to-date Adjusted Contact Scores of 90 or better, meriting our attention:

Steven Matz (57 “tru” ERA-, 70 Adjusted Contact Score): The Met lefty has been a revelation in his first full season. He’s exhibited a strong grounder tendency, and has put the squeeze on authority in the air (64 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score). Some regression should be expected here: his liner rate allowed is over a full STD below league average, and as previously indicated, liners rate are very volatile.

Aaron Nola (63, 81): This cat is the real deal. His BIP frequency profile evokes Kershaw, Syndergaard and Arrieta: strong grounder rate, limitation of authority of all BIP types, a near-average liner rate that doesn’t invite regression. Plus, his K-BB spread is at the elite level. Nola is well on his way to being one of the best starting pitchers in the game.

Max Scherzer (65, 90): “Tru” ERA- (65) has a significant disagreement with ERA (95) and FIP (107) in this case. Scherzer isn’t a grounder guy; he’s an elite pop-up generator, albeit one who allows quite hard fly-ball authority. That said, he’s been very unlucky in the air this season. He’s yielded an amazing .444 AVG and 1.489 SLG on fly balls through May 26, for a 262 Unadjusted Contact Score. Once adjusted for exit speed/angle, that plunges to 127. His overall Unadjusted Contact Score on all BIP types is 136; adjusted for context, it plunges to 90. Expect a summer traditional stat surge from Mr. Scherzer, an elite K/BB guy with improving contact-management ability.

Kyle Hendricks (67, 68): As of May 26, Hendricks is the best contact-manager in the NL. He’s posted the second-highest grounder rate in the league, and the lowest fly-ball rate. He has also yielded the lowest average fly-ball velocity (84.5 mph) to date, posting a 67 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score. His K and BB rates both sit in the average range, capping his ultimate ceiling somewhat, but Hendricks projects as an above-average starting pitcher thanks to his contact-management ability.

Kenta Maeda (68, 73): I have recently written at length about Maeda in this space. Unlike the others previously mentioned, except for Scherzer, Maeda does not have a ground-ball tendency. He gets it done with a high pop-up tendency, (6.4%, second in the NL, fractionally behind Madison Bumgarner) and across-the-board throttling of authority on all BIP types. His 70 ground ball Adjusted Contact Score is second best in the NL, his liner Adjusted Contact Score of 86 ranks third, and his 67 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score is also quite strong. As with Hendricks, the average-range K and BB rates cap his upside, but the contact-management ability is real.

Here are some other interesting cases, where “tru” ERA- differs quite greatly from ERA- and FIP-, due to some interesting contact-management nuances:

Scott Kazmir (83 “tru” ERA-, 127 ERA-, 130 FIP-): This one really surprised me. Kazmir’s traditional numbers are kind of, well, OK to date. Decent K and BB rates, bunch of homers, higher-than-average ERA and FIP. Who would have known that he has quashed BIP authority better than any qualifying starter to date. Now, his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 90 is good but not great, as his area of weakness has been fly-ball authority management (121 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score). His liner (76) and grounder (73) Adjusted Contact Scores rank first and fourth in the league, respectively. His BIP mix is suboptimal, and BIP authority figures are more volatile than frequencies, so I don’t believe he’s suddenly evolving into an elite contact-manager. He is, however, way better than his present traditional metrics.

Jon Niese (96, 124, 142): The traditional numbers might not say so, but the Pirates might be at it again with Niese. The latest ground-balling reclamation project taken on by the Bucs, Niese has allowed an unsightly .468 AVG-1.340 SLG on fly balls (237 Unadjusted Contact Score) to date. In actuality, he’s allowed lesser-than-average fly-ball authority, good for an 85 fly ball Adjusted Contact Score. This trims his overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 128 down to 90. No, his K and BB rates won’t ever be eye-catching, but solid contact-management skills make him a viable back-end starter moving forward.

Mike Leake (128, 100, 117): Here’s the flip side of Niese. Leake does have a solid ground-ball tendency, but has a real authority-management problem. No one has allowed harder overall average velocity than Leake, and he ranks a close second worst in average fly-ball and grounder velocity allowed. Somehow, someway, he has allowed only .138 AVG-.138 SLG on grounders (34 Unadjusted Contact Score) to date; based on exit speed, he “should have” allowed a .262 AVG-.285 SLG line (129 Adjusted Contact Score to date). The story is similar, if not as extreme, on flies and liners: his overall Unadjusted Contact Score of 78 blows up to 125 once adjusted for context. He’s durable, sure, but this contract simply is not going to end well.

Jeff Locke (103, 133, 138): Only one pitcher with an Adjusted Contact Score better than 100 has a “tru” ERA- over 100; Locke’s the guy, and his Adjusted Contact Score is a gaudy 84. While he has benefited from an unusually low liner rate, which is bound to regress, Locke has a solid grounder tendency, and maintains authority levels in or near the average range on all BIP types. He has been very unlucky on liners (135 Unadjusted, 97 Adjusted Contact Score), and especially on grounders (188, 89). His poor K and BB rates give him absolutely no margin for error with regard to contact-management. All in all, slightly worse than league-average performance appears to be his best-case scenario.

Let’s close with perhaps the most bizarre line from the above table. Check out Jose Fernandez, he of the league-best K rate, league-worst liner rate, and one of only two pitchers (along with Leake) with a “red” overall average authority allowed figure. I am not worried about Fernandez; his fly ball Adjusted Contact Score of 70 is quite good, and his liner/grounder contact scores, while worse than average, aren’t horrendous. The driving force behind his high overall Adjusted Contact Score is that obscenely high 29.6% liner rate. That will regress, likely in a big way. Despite it, his “tru” ERA- remains very strong at 73. How good will he be when the inevitable regression occurs? For the same reason, I’m not worried about Matt Harvey or Adam Wainwright, either.

There are plenty of really good pitchers we haven’t mentioned today: Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jaime Garcia, Stephen Strasburg, etc. Strasburg was once where Fernandez is now; becoming even an average contact-manager has allowed him to step up in class. There are so many ways that successful starting pitchers get the job done, and contact-management ability is an aspect of the occupation that deserves ongoing scrutiny.

We hoped you liked reading National League Contact-Management Update by Tony Blengino!

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Mark Davidson
Member

I love this series. So stoked to see mid-season updates!